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EPISODE 58: Fighting Against God - Roger Sherrer's Story
Everyone in his town knew Roger Sherrer as “the community atheist.” He thought belief in God was not only childish but bad and needed to be taken down. His atheism began to break down as he suffered the consequences of his nihilistic worldview.
Hello and thanks for joining in. I'm Jana Harmon, and you're listening to Side B Stories, where we see how skeptics flip the record of their lives. Each podcast, we listen to someone who has once been an atheist or skeptic, but who became a Christian against all odds. You can hear more of these stories at our Side B Stories website at www.sidebstories.com. We also welcome your comments on these stories on our Side B Stories Facebook page as well.
When someone takes on an identity, whether it be atheist or Christian, we often have presumptions of who they are. That works both ways. At least we think we know who they are, and they think they know who we are. We think we know what they think, how they feel about things. We presume that they will always be like that and that they will never change. And vice versa. But if you get to know someone, and they get to know you, oftentimes our perceptions will change as we begin to reveal the persons we are below the persona, below the presumed negative caricatures and stereotypes. Sometimes, underneath a hard exterior and strong anti-God sentiment of an atheist, lurks the unexpected, softer side of someone who has the same human needs and desires for truth, meaning, value, and love as everyone else.
In today's story, former atheist and strong anti-theist Roger Sherrer thought belief in God was not only childish but bad and needed to be taken down. Now, he is just as passionate about his belief in God and is an apologist for the Christian worldview. What could move someone from such an anti-God vitriol to becoming such a strong advocate for Christianity? I hope you'll join in to find out.
Welcome to the Side B podcast, Roger. It’s so great to have you with me today!
Yeah, thank you so much for having me, Jana. I'm honored to be on here with you.
Wonderful. As we're getting started, Roger, tell us a little bit about who you are, where you live, perhaps-
Sure. I'm a youth pastor. I'm in Lebanon, Missouri, and so here in the Midwest. We’ve got a church, on average, I would say youth wise, we run about 200 on a Wednesday. So a lot of fun that we have here in our youth group. But beyond that, I'm also a college student, and so I recently finished my undergrad at Liberty. And my degree is in Christian ministries and currently working on my masters right now and doing my thesis. And my masters is in apologetics, also from Liberty. So that's kind of what I've been doing the last couple of years.
Okay. It sounds like you're very, very busy.
Yeah, I like busy. All good ministry is busy ministry. So it's fun.
Yes. That's great. Well, let's walk back into your story and your childhood, because obviously you have experienced a period of disbelief. But as it stands now, it appears that you're a very strong believer and a strong advocate of the Christian faith. So let's walk back into your childhood and tell me about—did you grow up in that area in Lebanon? Or in the Midwest? Tell me about your home, your culture. Was Christianity or God a part of your upbringing?
Yeah. And so no, I guess, would be the short answer. And it's been what I tell people about my family. My mom and my dad were divorced, and so I kind of had two families. But I tell people there's two people that have never heard me preach the gospel. Of course, I've preached on Sundays. I've preached on Wednesdays. But my mom or my dad are two people, they've never heard me give a message. They've never heard me give my testimony. And that is something, growing up, being very distant from church, organized religion, certainly something that we did not adhere to, and so what kind of started as unbelief growing up in Missouri, really transitioned from just almost an agnostic, “I don't know if there's a God. I don't really care if there's a God,” turning into a version of anti-theism, in which my identity going into high school really was predicated upon, “There is no God, and not only do I believe there's no God, but if you believe in God, then you have inferior intelligence. You are a weak person. You are emotionally, mentally, psychologically, intellectually subpar.” And so my identity, people that knew me in Lebanon, which is a town of about 15,000 or 20,000 people, I was kind of known as the community atheist. That was really something that people knew me as. And so that very much was my testimony up until about my junior year of high school. In terms of growing up in church, there certainly was no church component in my life.
So what did your parents believe? Did they have any animosity towards God or religion? Or was your home irreligious?
Yeah. It was very irreligious, and I think my dad never spoke of God. I think he did not grow up in a religious household, and so I think a lot of times your belief is going to be dominated by your upbringing. In my dad's case, that was very true. My mom, I always said—and I love my mom, and she's a very genuine person, but a lot of her what I would call a religious belief was her political beliefs. And so very, very progressive politically, very much a humanist in terms of her philosophy. And a deity did not play a role in a lot of what she believed in, the principles that she wanted to pass down to myself. God was obsolete. He was unnecessary in what my mom truly felt was important. And so she was not dogmatic that there is no God. It simply was He was absent in all of the things that she gave to me. And I was really the one to say, “Hey, not only is Christianity irrelevant, but it's actually harmful and detrimental to intellectual growth.”
And I do want to investigate where that contemptuousness came from, but before we get there, even as you were growing up as a child, the Midwest is typically steeped in at least a cultural Christianity. Did you have any friends, even growing up, as a boy or a child, that professed belief?
I would say that I did have friends that were Christians. I would say that they were very lukewarm and that they didn't get their feelings hurt when I professed my atheism. The people that I targeted, and I did target them, were those outside of my friend group, and really the FCA kids, as I called them. They were not just Christians, they were the obnoxious Christians, and they were the ones I really wanted to humiliate. I wanted to minimize them. And so I did have friends that were Christians. I don't think any of my close friends went to church. I think they were very much Pascal's wager level Christians. “Hey, I believe in it for fire insurance, but it's not really something I live out every single day.”
So as you were growing up, and your mother obviously saw no need for God, and there was no God in your home, what informed your particular atheist identity … I mean belief that there is no God is a fairly strong positive statement of reality.
How did you come to that place or that conclusion or that identity, I guess. How old were you when you decided that you believed in this way?
Yeah, no. That’s a great question. And so I would say my 8th grade year I watched a YouTube video. YouTube was just becoming a thing, and it was a Christopher Hitchens talk on a book that he was writing called God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. I was completely mesmerized by what he was saying, and I thought, “Everything that I've kind of perceived, he's putting it in words that make sense.” The next year would have been my freshman year of high school, 2007, and Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion hits The New York Times bestselling list. And I went to Barnes & Noble in St. Louis, just a couple of hours away, and I bought my copy of The God Delusion. And that was my Bible. I memorized that book, and it was really my blueprint on how to deal with Christians, how to argue with Christians.
And so I found, in a very Bible Belt community, I'm wearing politically motivated shirts, and the people that are the most distasteful to me are those that are carrying a King James Bible. And so it gave me an incentive to take my atheism a step further, to say, “Well, no, now I actually have motive to be angry at you people, because you're the ones that oppose everything that I stand for.” And so it was the New Atheist Movement, the Dawkinses and the Dennetts and the Harrises and the Michael Shermers, and I still have all those books at my house. They're in my garage, and I read them front to back. I read the Old Testament, and I memorized many parts of the Old Testament, the Levitical laws, the Deuteronomical laws. And it really became an opportunity for me to intellectually flex myself against those that I truly believed were just brainwashed.
So you found an intellectual affinity with these New Atheists, and if you read their writings, which you obviously have, there is a bit of animosity spewing from the pages towards Christians, and I would imagine that, when you start there and then you add then the political aspects to it, I can see where the contemptuousness would rise.
Yeah. And I would say it reminds me of one of my favorite apologists, Frank Turek. When he debated Christopher Hitchens, of all people, he summarized Christopher's atheism or antitheism as, “There is no God, and I hate him,” and that very much was my atheism. “God does not exist. He's Santa Claus for adults, and, oh, by the way, He’s a misogynistic bully, and if you believe in him, you believe in a celestial dictator.” And so I very much went into the level of animosity that it was a war zone. When we talked about faith, when we talked about your testimony, I was going to treat you with the disdain that I thought you deserved.
So you really embodied that the religion is bad and should be gotten rid of as quickly as possible, that poisonous view of Christianity and of Christians and that whole ideology.
Well, I would say often that some atheists say, “I don't believe in God, but I wish God did exist. It sounds nice.” I took the stance of, “I don't believe in God, and I'm glad He doesn't exist.” And so when I say I was the community atheist, outside of Lebanon High School, we had a local message board that people would post on. The newspaper had it on their website. And I was one of the only ones that used my name. I used Roger Sherrer because I wanted everybody to know, “Hey, I'm not hiding behind a name.” And most of my posts had to do with Christianity and why it needed to be lessened in our community. So people that knew my name, they knew me as, “Oh, that's the atheist kid from Lebanon High School.” And so it was not a secret.
Right. So if God did not exist, and Christianity was not true, what was Christianity in your mind?
As Stephen Hawking said, it was for those that are afraid of the dark. It is for those that cannot explain death. It is the biggest phobia, the biggest fear that humans, we innately have. And yet, just as Mark Twain said, “You were dead 1000 years before you were born, it will be the same after you die.” You will cease to exist. And it is for people that need to play fairy tale to give them answers, just as we give children answers about the man that goes down the chimney or the bunny that does this or the tooth fairy. It is simply a more adult version of what we have been making up for centuries upon centuries. That was my answer. And just as at some point you have to tell children, “Hey, Guys, Santa’s not real,” it was my intellectual responsibility to play that role for adults and say, “Hey, Guys, the jig is up. It's time to start living a different direction.”
What convinced you that atheism and/or naturalism or materialism or the worldview that came along with atheism was true?
Yeah. It’s funny, because when I was in high school, I was captain of the debate squad. Speech and debate was my thing. It was the only thing I was really, really good at. So, in the midst of that identity of me trying to be this confident, vehement, dogmatic atheist that is just so good at speaking to all these Christians, deep down was the most insecure person you would have ever met, that was screaming, “Love me! I want somebody to love me. I want somebody to hold me and to say, ‘Hey, it's going to be okay.’” And so my compromising in life of my war against Christianity came down so much to the biggest things that I feared. And so in the midst of that was my diagnosis with depression and the sadness and the despair that I had, and really, I would say, a nihilistic philosophy, in that there is no meaning, there is no value, there is no purpose. And it was Halloween night 2009, October 31, that I wrote out my suicide note. And it was a two-page note. It's actually a note that I read to our congregation a few months ago for a sermon that we did on mental health, and I read the suicide note from beginning to end, where I apologized to my mom, to my dad, to my grandparents, to my principal and said, “I'm so sorry that I've been this burden on you,” because I had never felt any semblance of meaning for me to even exist anymore. And it was in that midst of breaking myself down to the point where there was nowhere to look other than up because I was on my back.
And it was the next morning I found myself at the First Baptist Church. And funnily enough, the church that I'm sitting in, the church I'm now a pastor at, was the church that I found myself at, in the corner of the balcony, trying to hide from everybody to get some type of answer. And during the invitation, the pastor said, “If you lack meaning, value, or purpose in your life, there is a God that wants to know you,” and it was a Saul-to-Paul-level conversion in that moment, that I truly had become born again.
Wow. Okay. There's a lot there.
A lot there. Yeah. I wanted to give you everything, and then you could unpack it.
Okay. So first of all, I want to acknowledge here that you were an honest enough atheist to understand the implications or consequences of your own worldview, which the endpoint is nihilism. For those who don't understand that term, can you just express what nihilism is?
Sure. Yeah. It really is that… the aspect of what is the meaning of life? And that is a question that, if you look up Google searches, everybody wants to know. What is my meaning? And to me, I would tell people, I would say, “Listen, this is doom and gloom, but this is what you need to hear. We are on this rock, this pale blue dot, for a little bit of time. We will die. We will cease to exist. We will eventually decompose. And our meaning is whatever we put into it. But beyond that, our meaning is relative. It's subjective. And in the end, we're going to explode. We're all going to die a heat death on this Earth. And our meaning, therefore, is by definition, purposeless, meaningless, and valueless. All of those things are man-made inventions that we put upon ourselves. We impose on ourselves to, again, give us some level of optimism when we wake up the next day. But in the end, there is truly no purpose in what we do. We are simply one species evolved from those that are in the animal kingdom. We are a half chromosome away from a chimpanzee. And in the end, we all die the same death, which leaves us with very little.”
And so that was my style of nihilism. And usually people left saying, “That’s really depressing.” But I said, “Yeah, but the truth isn't always depressing, right? I mean, when we see children get cancer, it's easy to make up fairy tales and to make up heaven, and that sounds really good, but in the end, they're dead, and they're going in the ground with you and I, and that's the end of it.” And so I think I almost wanted it to sound that depressing, because to me, life was depressing. And I wanted my philosophy in life to mirror everything else I saw. That was the lens that I viewed everything, was truly value is simply a man-made principle that truly doesn't exist.
So that's a very honest, pragmatic, sober-minded view of life. Just because you lived this, and I'm so curious, again, as someone coming from another perspective now. But looking back, there are a lot of issues within atheism that are difficult to grapple with, nihilism, meaninglessness being one of them. But there are other questions that are very difficult to answer, I think, within the atheistic and naturalistic worldview, and I won't name them for you. I want to see if there were any conundrums within the atheistic worldview that you scratched your head and said, “I'm not really sure about that. I don't know how to answer that. I'm not sure if science will actually provide the answers that we need.” You had mentioned earlier that you were a very strong antitheist, and oftentimes with strong antitheism comes a strong confidence that your worldview is true, and for all of these reasons. But I wondered if there were any inherent doubts for you, as you, at the same time, were projecting this strength of persona of atheism.
Yeah. I think the first true intellectual objection that I had to really look myself in the mirror was a few months before I became a Christian. I was still very much involved in my atheism, and a local pastor that had heard of me had invited me to have a meeting with him. And I very much agreed, because I loved nothing more than to have one-on-one conversations with pastors. And so I met with him, and we talked a lot about some of the issues we've already discussed, and one of those was dealing with death and how you deal with people that are involved in that, whether it be the death of a loved one. And he said, “Roger, I want you to put yourself in my shoes for a second. I want you to pretend that you're a pastor and that you're in my shoes.” And I said, “Okay.” And he said, “I want to tell you a true story that happened a few weeks ago.” And he said, “I had a couple here, mother and father, loving couple, devout Christians. The mother had a baby that was stillborn. The baby did not make it. They had named this baby. They had painted the walls of this baby's room. They had picked out all the outfits for this child. And as a pastor, I'm driving to the hospital, and I'm thinking of the words that I have to say to this mother and to this father that are holding their baby.” And he said, “Thankfully, we were able to turn it into a moment of celebration, in that you're going to see that child again. You will be with your child in eternity.” He said, “Roger, I want you to play the role of me right now. How would you have responded with your worldview to that family?” And I think in that moment, it took the issue off of me because it was easy for me to say, “Well, hey, life is meaningless. I'm only here for a little bit. I'm going to have as much fun as I can.” But in the first moment in my life, my feet were held to the fire on how do you respond to grief? How do you respond to suffering as an atheist?
Because it was easy for me to put the telescope on God and say, “Well, why would God allow this?” But then instead to turn that telescope back on me and say, “Okay, if you can't explain God's account for suffering, how do you explain that account apart from God? How are you able to give that answer?” And I think that question wrestled with me for months and months and months, and it kept me up at night.
And even now, as a pastor, and I get to talk to atheists that maybe have a similar question, and I get to use that example that worked in my life. And so that was something that—obviously it's an emotional ploy, but there is an intellectual side of how do we have an account for that suffering if nihilism truly is put into practice? And I think that that was something that really was effective in my testimony.
That's very interesting and actually insightful, in terms of him asking you to consider something from your own worldview. Were there any other issues? Obviously, you are a thinker, you are a debater, and you knew the issues coming from the atheistic perspective. Were there any that you just scratched your head, like, “I'm not sure why there's something rather than nothing?” Or, “How did the universe arise out of nothing?” Or the fine tuning of the universe? Or consciousness?
Sure. Yeah, well, my thesis is on the second premise of the Kalam cosmological argument, and so I'm looking at William Lane Craig's work in the last ten years, specifically from 2006 until today, with the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin theorem, and basically, as we see the expansion of the universe and we're starting to see more and more through the Hubble telescope, and less than 100 years ago, in the late 1920s, and so I have a passion for the origins and the beginning of the universe. But what's interesting is that was never an issue, I think, that I really grappled with when I was an atheist. I think the best argument, in terms of an intellectual argument, which again was innately emotional, was probably what CS. Lewis grappled with in Mere Christianity. It's funny because I talk about politics, and my mom was dominated by politics, and I was dominated by, I would say, my mom's politics. And of course, going door to door, missing school in 2007, because I was going door to door, telling people to vote for the president that I wanted to vote for. That was very much my view, is, “Okay, let's get God out of the way, and let's focus on real world issues.”
And I had a friend. His name is Tim. He’s a pastor here in Lebanon. But he was my one Christian friend that did go to church, and he did live out his faith. And I remember he would ask me, he said, “Roger, why do you hate Christians so much?” And I focused on homophobia. I focused on women who don't have the rights that they should because of Christianity. And I remember Tim saying, “Well, Roger, why is that wrong? Why is it wrong? Let's say Christians are homophobic, hypothetically. Why is that wrong?” And I would say, “Well, that's wrong because it's humanity,” and blah, blah, blah. And eventually he got me to eventually run into my nihilism, in that I'm so angry about all of these issues. And then finally, “Roger, what standard are you using to say that Christians are immoral for these actions that they take?” And I think finally figuring out, “Well, wait a second, I think certain things are objectively evil and some things are objectively good. Well, wait a second, I can't do that. I have to argue moral relativism. There's no other way out of that.” And so then, finding myself looking at the arguments for moral relativism and subjective morality, but then finding out that, yeah, that doesn't do it for me, because if moral relativism is true the way I need it to be true, it has to be a prerequisite. Well, then I don't get to have the moral outrage that I truly feel when it comes to why certain Christians do this and why self righteousness exists and why judgmental people exist. And so I think it really was objective moral values and duties. If they exist, what standard do I have? And eventually I realized, “Well, some of this is self evident. There are objective moral values.” And that one was tough for me, too, as an atheist, I would say.
But I guess, too, I want to appreciate the fact that as a sober-minded thinker, a debater, someone who was willing to weigh the ideas for what they were, you were willing to admit that objective moral values and duties don't fit within the box of naturalism. That they are not consistent with your worldview. Again, for those who might be listening and are a little bit confused by that, I guess maybe you can speak to the fact that atheists have a sense of right and wrong, right? And can be very moral people.
But their ability to ground that sense of right and wrong is-
Exactly. Yeah. And I tell people all the time, jokingly, I know a lot of atheists that are a lot better on the surface than some of the Christians that I've met and talked to. And as Paul writes in Romans, he says, “The law was written on their hearts.” It's not that you have to read the Bible. When Moses had the Ten Commandments, I'm assuming they knew, “Thou shalt not kill,” before he revealed the Ten Commandments. And so it's not just the knowledge, but it is where is that seed? Okay, I've never been taught that killing children recreationally is evil. What makes that self evident? And so we all have that self evidence, no matter what our philosophical or ideological belief is. The question then becomes what is the seed? What is what is written on our hearts, as Paul says in the book of Romans. And so certainly, yeah, that is definitely something that I think a lot of atheists will straw man and say, “Well, no. I’m a good person. I do a lot of good.” And that's not the argument. So yeah.
So it sounds like, in your journey, that you were having not only some intellectual doubts, some dissonance perhaps, with regard to your own worldview intellectually, but also existentially, that you were depressed because of the purposelessness and the meaninglessness of life, I mean to the point where you were willing to write a suicidal note. And obviously, thankfully, that did not come to fruition. But you mentioned in your story that you found yourself in a church. And so I'm curious. Were you invited? Was it because of your felt need that perhaps there's something more? Or maybe I need to give this a second look. I mean, the thought of such a strong antitheist sitting in a worship service in a church? I guess I'm just wanting to know how you got from A to Z here.
Yeah, no. And so it’s funny because, my junior year, I took an art class with a lady by the name of Shelley Osborne. Shelley Osborne was who I would call obnoxiously Christian. She was not enough to say, “I believe in God,” but she had to wear the cross around her neck, and she was obnoxious. And I did not like her, and I didn't even know her, but I didn't like her. And my friends knew, you're going to take an art class with the obnoxious Christian. You're the obnoxious atheist, and so my friends literally took that class with me as spectators, because they knew that I was going to challenge her. And I think it was like the third week, and she starts talking about art history, and she's showing Christian art, she's showing these different levels of Christian art. And I immediately raise my hand, and I start asking her, “Mrs. Osborne, is it true you believe that a man survived in a giant fish for three days? Because if you believe that, I've got some ocean front property for you that I'd like to sell you. You believe in the talking serpent. You believe in all of this. You believe in the story of Noah on the boat,” and I mean, just humiliating her in class in front of all these students. My friends, they’re in the corner, and they're like, “This is perfect. This is fun.”
And I remember Mrs. Osborne, she said, “Roger, I can't give you my testimony in a public school class,” and she moved on. But it was afterwards she came up to me, and she said, “Roger, if you really have questions about my faith, I'm going to do something out of the ordinary. I'm going to invite you to have a meeting with my pastor, and you are allowed to ask him any question you want to.” And so again, my rule, if a pastor invited me, I accepted. And so the next day, she took me to her church, which happens to be the church that I'm sitting in. And I met Matt Taylor, who happens to now be my boss and my lead pastor. And I met Matt Taylor, and we had a two-hour dialogue where I asked him all of my gotcha questions. Those are my checkmate questions that I knew no Christian could answer. And the conversation was very uneventful, because I don't remember much of the content of what we talked about. Neither of our minds were changed, but I remember afterwards, as I got up to leave, he came up, and he hugged me, and he said, “Hey, you want to do lunch tomorrow?” And it was the first time in my life where a Christian, after I had just spent two hours decimating his worldview and telling him why he was basically an intellectual idiot, he had embraced me and said, “Hey, let's hang out. Let's do some stuff,” and so what began was the most unlikely friendship in the history of Lebanon, Missouri, the most well-known lead pastor and the most well-known atheist. And Matt Taylor became my best friend in the entire world. He became the person that I called. We never talked religion beyond debate, and I never asked for prayer. But when I needed someone to listen to me, Matt was the person I called, apart from being a pastor or a minister.
And so I tell people all the time, 1 Peter 3:15 is kind of the apologetics verse. “Be prepared to give an answer to anyone who asks it of the hope that is in you, but do so with gentleness and respect.” And if we don't do it with gentleness and respect, having an answer will so often fall on deaf ears, because no atheist has ever converted to Christ because they lost a debate. I've never met an atheist that said, “Okay, your points are better than my points. You win. I’ll be a Christian.” There's obviously much more to that. It is how we present ourselves. And so the next morning, I write my suicide note, I call the suicide hotline, I pass out on my bed, and I wake up the next morning as alone and defeated as I had ever felt. And I remember saying, “I need to be around the one person who has loved me throughout all of this, and his name happens to be Matt Taylor.” And so I went to the First Baptist Church not to be a Christian, but because I felt that that's where I needed to be, because that's where Matt was.
That's extraordinary! So from the initial meeting, and he said, “Let’s do lunch.” I just am curious what that looked like. You met for lunch. You said you didn't debate. Was it just getting to know you like a friend and hanging out? What did that look like? And for how long did that last?
Yeah. It's funny, in the few months of my atheism, he taught me how to drive a stick shift. And so I was 17, and I didn't have my driver's license because my parents had never taken me out to drive. I had failed the driver's test. And Matt said, “Hey, meet me at the church at 11:00.” And so he taught me how to drive a stick shift. And then I went and got my driver's license. And he's a big Pittsburgh Steelers fan. I'm a big Atlanta Falcon fan. So we would talk football, and we would argue why the Falcons are better than the Steelers. And he was a right wing conservative, and he would say that from the pulpit. I was a far left liberal. And so we would argue politics, and we would have fun with it. And he truly got to know me in a span of a few months, more so than probably any friend I had ever had.
Wow. So he really just invested in you just because he loved you as a friend.
Yeah. And I was so used to Christians saying, “Hey, I'll pray for you,” and I never heard from them again. And my response to that was always, “You pray for me, and I'll think for you,” because it was so condescending, and it was so much…. Christians were so focused on the afterlife that they were missing what was happening in that moment, and all it would have taken was ten minutes to realize, “There’s something else with this kid. There's something going on here,” and they were so focused on my eternity, which is important. As a pastor, I'm very much into that. I think we need to be into that, but we have to minister to people where they're at. And Matt ministered to where I was at, and he did it with gentleness and respect, and it opened my heart.
Through all those months together, did he ever bring up kind of God-focused conversations, or did he just let you become open to go wherever you felt comfortable?
Yeah, no. We did. And it got to the point where he broke those walls down, where he could give me his testimony, and he can tell me about the impossible things that God had done in his life, and instead of me getting into debate mode, I think I was willing to listen to them. Now, granted, my response typically was, “Hey, Matt. That’s great. I appreciate that you believe that,” but I think it humanized it to an extent where it wasn't just a sales pitch. I always said Christians are like timeshare people. “Hey, I've got a place that you can stay for the weekend, but you have to listen to my presentation,” and so many Christians maybe wanted to be my friend, and then I realized, “Oh, wait a second, this is a timeshare. You just want me to listen to your sales pitch. Okay, well, no, I'm out, because I thought you actually wanted to be with me. It turns out you just wanted to make your little sales pitch.” Matt ceased that in my life. He was a Christian that it wasn't just a timeshare presentation, but he was able to make it real in a way that I had actually never seen before, and so he taught me a lot without necessarily beating me over the head with a Bible.
That's really beautiful. But through your relationship, you were still, I guess, going downhill emotionally in your own life, really despairing, I guess, and to the point where you were willing, I guess of your own volition, to go to church. That I'm sure, in your mind, must have been a real point of desperation. But yet having been softened, I suppose, by having been with Matt and seeing the love and care that he showed-
So tell me again a little bit more about what happened that morning.
Yeah. It was funny because I did not want people to know I was there. I did not want people because my fear was that, everyone jokes about, “Well, if I walk into church, the steeple is going to burn down,” or something like that. Being a local celebrity and that my atheism was my identity, and I'm now going to the biggest Southern Baptist church in Lebanon, Missouri. I joked that it was like I became a Navy Seal. I became a special operations Tom Clancy splinter cell. Like, I snuck into that church and got to the balcony. And in our church, we have a lower level, and then we have an upper level. And I was able to get unscathed to the top left corner of the balcony, and I was able to sit by myself, away from everybody. Matt didn’t know I was there. I had to call Matt the next day, and say, “Hey, buddy. We need to have a conversation because there's something I need to tell you.” But I was able to get into church and leave church basically unnoticed.
And what's really cool about that as a pastor—I preach a handful of times a year on Sundays. And every time I will preach, I end it with an invitation. And that invitation is the top left corner of that balcony. And I get to point to the very balcony that I got to sneak into and the balcony that I became born again in, now preaching to 1000 people on a Sunday and saying, “Hey, maybe you're in that balcony right now. Maybe that's where you're at.” And so it's like we talk about how God writes these stories in our life. And it's like, man, God wrote this out perfectly. Twelve years later, I still get to do that. And it was last month was my spiritual birthday, November 1, 2009. And every year, that's the most important day of my life. And it's a day of reflection and just a day of thanks, that God, you've put me in this position, like I don't deserve this. And yet that's how He works. And so it's been really, really cool.
So what did you hear that morning that changed your mind and heart? Did you anticipate going in…. You went in stealth, and you weren't probably sure why you were there. But then… So it was probably an approach avoidance in a way, but then you found yourself on the other side of the fence.
Yeah. And I think my goal was truly not to get a gospel conversation or a presentation. I think my goal was to show up, hide, and then eventually, once the message was over, I was going to kind of sneak down to Matt and say, “Hey, buddy. Can we maybe go do lunch or something?” And so my goal was kind of to get to Matt. And I knew church is where he's at. It's easy to find a pastor on a Sunday morning. You don't have to go searching for him. And the message itself, the content of the message, is not what really drew me in, but in that invitation, and I say that it was word for word. “If you lack value, meaning, or purpose, there is a God above that wants to know you,” and as Christians, we always joke like, “Man, Pastor, Preacher, that message really spoke to me this morning. I felt like you were preaching to me one on one.” That's never been more literal in that moment. Because he inadvertently—it wasn't like he knew I was there. He used the very lingo of how I saw life. I mean, meaning, value and purpose, that’s what he said.
And I tell people, and they think I'm being hyperbolic or figurative, I almost collapsed in my chair. And it really was a moment that—I say Saul to Paul. And it was a moment where I walked out of the church. I tell people I could have crab walked all the way to Pittsburgh. I was so happy. I didn't know why. I couldn't explain everything, but I knew I was born again. And so my whole life flashing in a moment, and I knew, “This is why I'm here, and this is my story.”
So the words “born again,” especially for those who are perhaps skeptics, skeptical, of that kind of Christian language, that may seem a little bit off putting. What do you mean by born again?
Yeah. No, I mean, and Paul talks about a new body, and we say born again, and it does become, and as a pastor, I'm always careful, because sometimes we get into that church lingo. But in that moment, realizing the gift of grace and realizing that I had spent my entire life sitting on God's lap, just so I could slap Him in the face, and knowing that, for some people, it's the struggle of, am I truly forgiven? And I think in that moment, as I was accepting Jesus, I was like, “God, do You really love me? Do You really understand all the things that I have done?” Because I had been living for the flesh, and yet in that moment—and when I say flesh, my meaning and purpose in life was what is happening right now? Because in the end, it's all going to end. But to truly realize that there's something beyond myself, and I think when I talk to my students, and I hear students present Jesus to people, and I say it's very important. And as a former atheist, I would give this advice to any Christian: Do not present Jesus as a self-help coach. Do not present Jesus as Somebody who is going to fix all of your problems, because if that's the case, there's going to be a lot of former atheists that feel like they've been sold a bill of goods.
One of my favorite authors, J. Warner Wallace, he says, in Cold Case Christianity, he says, “I did not become a Christian because it works for me. I did not become a Christian because it makes life better. I became a Christian because Christianity is true, and it became real to me.” And so in that moment, making something that was once artificial, something that was once flat-out fake, in how I viewed it, it became real. It became authentic. And in that moment, I realized, “I'm leaving this a new creation. I am leaving this as a brand new person.” I'm still Roger, I still have the same struggles. And by the way, 29 years old, I still suffer from clinical depression. And that's my testimony. God did not cure my depression. He did not remove a lot of the anguish that I had in life, but He gave me an opportunity to live with that and to live through that through His Son Jesus. And so I know that's very churchy and it sounds very churchy, but I think even to the most hard atheist, he can hear that and say, “No. That’s not disingenuous. It may be a fairy tale, but it's not disingenuous.” And I think that that's important. It's important to be real with people, because atheists need real. They need authenticity. And I think, as Christians, we need to thrive on that.
Yeah. And and I agree with you. There was something so profoundly real and true for you in that moment that allowed you to surrender, as it were, surrender this animosity, surrender everything that you had. Like you said, you were sitting on God's lap to slap Him in the face. I can hear a skeptic in my mind saying, “Sometimes stories are too good to be true, and that's what you wanted. You wanted this kind of meaning. You wanted purpose and value and dignity. And although you were sober-minded to accept it as an atheist, you no longer are, so you bought into this.” What about that? Of course, there's been a huge transformation, but what about that morning that convinced you that it was true?
Now, J. Warner Wallace, I agree, and I believe that you believe that, too, that you believe Christianity not because it works, but because it's true. Same as C.S. Lewis, right? But what convinced you? Of course, God is involved in all of this, and sometimes changing your mind or your heart is mysterious, and it's a work of the Spirit of God. And at that moment, I'm sure it was much more profound than some kind of intellectual argument.
But at the end of the day, the skeptical rebuttal. How would you respond to that?
Yeah. Well, there has to be both, and so one could say, “Well, Roger, you contradicted yourself, because before you said no atheist has ever become a Christian because they lost a debate, but yet J. Warner Wallace says, ‘I became a Christian because Christianity is true,’ so how do those…?” And there has to be both. I appreciate Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, who say that there is something beyond myself, and even though we can get into the intellectual side, William Lane Craig, one of my favorite apologists, and of course I'm doing my thesis work on a lot of what he writes, but when he debates, he gives the intellectual arguments, the teleological argument, the cosmological argument, the moral argument, the ontological argument, all these big words that people are like, “Okay, great.” But he always ends every debate. He says the final argument is not much of an argument at all, but it's what philosophers call a properly basic argument, which is that God can be personally experienced, He can be known apart from arguments. And so, as Christians, we believe in the Holy Spirit, and that's not just church speak, right? I mean, that's not just, “Oh, all of these things,” and some Christians don't even know what they mean, but we literally believe, we literally believe that, when you become a Christian, that the Holy Spirit will come inside you. And we believe that as a born again Christian, you live with the Holy Spirit inside of you. That in itself—there has to be a level of self evidence to say, “Listen, I have personally experienced this.” Now, if you want to argue that and it's like, “Well, that's your experience versus my experience,” well, then that's when we're able to have an apologetical conversation and say, “Okay, that's my experience. That's our foundation, our pillars, our bedrock. We have that. Now let's build arguments on top of that that will confirm or validate the emotional experience to make it intellectual.” And so from there, okay, there's my testimony. Now let's talk about the beginning of the universe. Now let's talk about moral values and duties. Okay, let’s talk about the complexity of the human eye and let's go from there. But I think there you're able to bridge two conversations into one. And I think that that is very effective when dealing with atheists that are often going to have two different levels of questions, the emotional question and the intellectual question.
Right. And your story is such a beautiful marriage of the both.
Like I said, it is God's authorship in my life. And we talk about divine providence and all of that, and it has been a blessing to be able to share that testimony and to be able to baptize students every month that are very much in that position and to be able to say, “Hey, listen. God is using me as a vessel, and there's days I wonder, ‘Am I qualified? Is this really…’” like, of all the people, my background, my testimony, and yet it's just a confirmation every single day I'm exactly where God needs me.
Yeah. It really is beautiful, really, to listen to. And I imagine that people around you who have seen the transformation are just amazed that you no longer have to enter the church building like a Navy Seal.
No, I walk through the front door now.
You're on the front lines now.
Yeah. Exactly. It's amazing.
Right. So for those skeptics—and I love that you work with young people, because I'm sure you're hearing all kinds of push back, so you're on the front lines, just like I said. And so for those who are skeptics and who are listening in and are pushing back but yet open in some odd way, could you speak to them? What would you encourage them to do in dealing with this whole issue of God?
Yeah. And I think it's a great question, and I think if I have a student or even an adult that is grasping with that, or let's say they're not even grasping with it, they've made up their mind, and they say, “Hey, listen. God does not play a role,” I very much focus on the emotional versus the intellectual, kind of what we had talked about, finding out what those objections are. I think what you will find is that, from a naturalistic worldview, that this is all we have, nature is all… the observable universe, that's it. Going into the question of, “Okay, and that's great, and science is an amazing tool that we have,” but beyond that, when we talk about things that we experience every day, and I love focusing on human consciousness and music and poetry. Goodness gracious, I'm a 29-year-old man. I cannot watch Titanic without crying. I've never gotten through it without crying. It's embarrassing. I can't watch America's Got Talent without seeing an audition that just makes me feel like, “Yes! This is it!” And I don't mean to trivialize it, and yet I think we all have to have a standard, and we all have to have an account for, “Okay, this is how I explain this,” and there are so many atheists that are great, great people, and they do things in life that I envy on the goodness scale. But why are we putting that standard?
And going back to the pastor that I talked to years ago, and the mother holding the child, and the child has taken its last breath. What do you say? How do you respond? How do you do that with love and truth, but to give them hope? And I think that, for so many, and those that may be atheists, and they say, “Well, I can't fit God into this this worldview that I have.” Don't be afraid to ask questions, and don't be afraid to go to Christians that have answers. Because here's the thing: As Christians, we have a biblical account. We have 1 Peter 3:15, 2 Corinthians 10:5. Paul tells us we are to demolish arguments when we talk about the knowledge of God and that there are very real answers to very real questions. And if the only answers you're getting are, “You’re going to hell,” or, “I'm going to pray for you,” find other answers, because there may be some other answers that may intellectually surprise you.
Yeah. That’s good advice. And some of that, again, is for the Christian, too. I hear that asking good questions is a good thing. But when I think of your story and I think of, whether it's the art teacher in your life or Matt, Pastor Matt, and the way that he invested in you, even the way that the art teacher knew she may not have had the answers that you were seeking, but she knew someone who did. And resources. How would you commend Christians to engage?
That's so important. It's so incredibly important. It reminds me of a conversation I had. It was my sophomore year science class, and I was talking to a Christian, well-meaning kid, good kid, and he asked me, he's like, “Well, there's no way you're an atheist, and you believe in evolution, and yet why are there still monkeys? If evolution is true, then you evolved from a monkey, but there's monkeys all around,” and it's like, there's an easy atheistic response to that. You actually don't understand evolution. You're not a biologist. Like, we did not evolve from monkeys. We evolved from apelike ancestors. Like, okay, I just destroyed what you felt was a checkmate response to me when, in all actuality, your response should have been, “Hey, listen, I believe in intelligent design. I believe in young earth creationism, or progressive creationism like Hugh Ross, whatever you believe in,” and instead of us always having the answer, instead saying, “Hey, listen. Let me recommend a book. Hugh Ross wrote a book. He's got a ministry called Reasons to Believe. And all those objections you have, Hugh Ross, he's an astrophysicist. He is so brilliantly smart. I would encourage you to go and watch one of his DVDs and then let's talk about it. Let's have coffee, and give me your response, because I would love to hear, as an atheist, like, how do you respond to some of those objections that he has?” And as a former atheist, I promise you, anytime somebody told me, “Watch this, and let's talk about it,” I'll always take him up on that. And sometimes, as Christians, that's all we’ve got to do. We don't have to be smart. We just have to know somebody who is smart. And through that, we're able to have a lot of good conversations from it.
That's really, again, excellent advice. Anything else about your story that you think we missed that you'd like to add before we finish?
I will close with this: I wrote an article in a journal for our local apologetics network in the state of Missouri, and I implored parents and youth leaders. We are arming our children, our young adults. We are arming our students with rubber knives, and we are expecting them to go to gunfights when it comes to their faith. And “Jesus loves me, this I know,” is true if you're a Christian, but the questions that are being asked as we continue into this world that we live in, a fallen world, a postmodern world, we have to understand that young people are leaving the faith in droves. And even with my apologetic background, I have conversations consistently with students that come home and say, “I'm done. I'm not doing it anymore. Because I was never given an answer. I was never given an account.” And thankfully, some of those students we can try and win back, and we can have those conversations. Do not take this issue lightly. Do not take this issue with a grain of salt. It is a very real issue, and it is something that, as Christians, we need to be ready to fight. And I don't mean fight in a violent sense, but we need to be ready with our students and our young adults and our children. We need to arm them with the proper material, proper education, so that when they do go off to college, as Jesus says, to love the Lord your God with all your mind. We need to start teaching our students to love God with all their minds. And that would be my core thing that I always want to stress to parents. We’re in this together. Let’s do it. So that's how I would end it.
No, that's fantastic. And I think that applies to ourselves as well. Right? So many of us are ill equipped to deal with what's happening in culture, and the issues that are just like a tsunami that are coming at us. We all need to be prepared, right?
Very much so.
You've brought that up many times through 1 Peter 3:15. And I so appreciate that. Roger, you are just such an inspiration in so many ways. You are a voice of wisdom, a voice of reason, obviously a voice of passion for what you do, that this is something so incredibly real for you that you've made it the front line of your life. And I so appreciate your story. Your testimony is powerful. I think it gives hope for people who know others in their life and think they will never believe. I mean, you were that guy.
And now you’re this guy. I mean, look at you now, and I just think, “Praise God!” No one is too far from His reach, and His plans are perfect. So I am so grateful for you coming on to tell your story, and I'm excited for those who are listening. So thank you so much for coming on.
Oh, I appreciate that, Jana. Thank you for having me on, and thank you for all that you do and your ministry as well. And you certainly are fighting the good fight alongside, so we appreciate all that you do.
Thanks for tuning in to Side B Stories to hear Roger's story. You can find out more about Roger and the resources he recommended in this episode in the episode notes below. For questions and feedback about this episode, you can contact me through our website at, again, www.sidebstories.com. If you're a skeptic or atheist who would like to connect with Roger or a former atheist from this podcast with questions, please contact us on our Side B Stories website, and we'll get you connected. Again, I hope you enjoyed it and that you'll follow, rate, review, and share this podcast with your friends and social networks. In the meantime, I'll be looking forward to seeing you next time, where we'll see how another skeptic flips the record of their life.